In one of the most haunting scenes in the grandly tragic new musical Loch Lomond, Elspeth (Danielle Valentine) desperately tries to persuade her husband, Lyle (Benjamin Tissell), not to follow his younger brother, James (Colin Stephen Kane), into war.
“I will not go,” Lyle tells her, his velvety Scottish burr radiating sincerity. Yet the more he insists he will stay, the less Elspeth believes him—she knows he is incapable of stewing at home while his feckless sibling faces death. “The man I chose was always meant to go!” she sings later in the play.
Inevitability is at the heart of Loch Lomond, which features music by Neil Douglas Reilly and had its world premiere at Broadway Rose last weekend. It’s set largely in the Scottish Highlands during the Jacobite uprising of 1745, but it’s less a history lesson than a meditation on marriage and brotherhood—battlefields that the play suggests can be just as epic as actual wars.
From the start of the play, war obsesses James. “Prince Charlie’s coming to Scotland!” he sings jubilantly. Like many Scotsmen in the 1700s, James wants to see the throne of England occupied by one of the Catholic heirs of the exiled king James II, a cause that captivates him far more than his responsibilities on Lyle and Elspeth’s farm.
“He has no cares for chores,” Lyle says with resignation and affection. “He cares for Scotland.” That’s not entirely true—James also cares for his rambunctious lover, Ailey (Hannah Lauren Wilson)—but for him, the reality of romance can’t compete with the dream of patriotic glory.
Loch Lomond—which is directed by Isaac Lamb and assistant directed by Charles Grant, with music direction by Benjamin Quintel—is structured as a series of flashbacks. By the time the story is under way, Lyle and James have joined the fight, only to be captured and shut in an English prison. With savage glee, a guard offers them an ultimatum: They must decide which of them will be executed and which of them will return to their beloved Highlands.
While this cruel conundrum might have obliterated the bond between Lyle and James in a more brutal play, Loch Lomond uses it to draw them closer together. Maggie Herskowitz, who wrote the book and lyrics, weaves a wistful narrative that lets the brothers make peace with their mortality and savor sweet memories of the world they left behind.
That world is brought to life beautifully by Wilson and Valentine, whose portrayals of Ailey and Elspeth ensure that their characters are never defined solely by the men around them. In fact, Wilson plays Ailey as the most visibly tough character in Loch Lomond—especially when she establishes her dominance by dipping James and giving him a ferocious kiss.
Valentine’s performance is subtler, but no less forceful. When Ailey consoles Elspeth in the wake of a traumatizing loss, Valentine stares silently into space, a choice that perfectly captures Elspeth’s inability to understand why the universe keeps destroying everything she loves. She may not be the play’s protagonist, but her quiet anguish makes an even deeper impression than the hardened nobility of Lyle and the youthful vanity of James.
Without the catharsis of Reilly’s music and Herskowitz’s lyrics, shadows of looming bereavement might have suffocated Loch Lomond. Yet the music allows emotions to swell and soar like helium balloons, even as the characters accept their grim fates in songs like Ailey and Elspeth’s poetically devastating duet “Time Makes Liars of Us.”
As a grandson of Scottish immigrants, I inherited the Ferguson family motto: “Sweetness in difficulty.” Loch Lomond reminded me of those words, especially when Lyle sings, “And I know deep inside that the Highlander’s pride will keep shining forever!” You don’t have to care about the Jacobite uprisings to be stirred by his conviction.
Judging by Loch Lomond’s robust opening night crowd, it is destined to be popular. I’m happy that Broadway Rose is requiring masks and proof of vaccination (or a negative COVID-19 test result), but I was also unnerved by the size of the audience. Post-quarantine, sitting close to strangers can be a stressful (not to mention distracting) experience.
That said, Loch Lomond sustains the spirit of adventurous pandemic-era Broadway Rose productions like Daddy Long Legs and The Last Five Years. The message of the play is that all things end, but when it was over, I got the feeling that—like a lot of Portland-area theater companies fighting to emerge from an age of agonizing uncertainty—Broadway Rose is just getting started.
- “Loch Lomond” continues through Oct. 24 at Broadway Rose New Stage, 12850 S.W. Grant Ave., Tigard.
- Strict Covid requirements are in place: masks must be worn, and proof of full vaccination or a negative Covid test within 72 hours must be presented, along with personal identification.
- Tickets and scheduling information: https://www.broadwayrose.org/loch-lomond/.